First Freestyle of 2014

January 3, 2014

My bed is full of ashes
ghosts and fingers that creep
like vines.

I, limbless
perambulate
the contours of a dream
that approaches
a nightmare.

I am home and horizontal.

You’re on the porch with the broom sweeping the same spot, getting the same sound-dry straw against dry leaf caught in the loose-dirt crevice of the cement tiles. No phone, no footfalls, no welcome variation. It’s 3:15. Your ears strain, stretching down the block, searching through schoolchild chatter for that one voice that will give you ease. Your eyes sting with the effort to see over bushes, look through buildings, cut through everything that separates you from your child’s starting point-the junior high school.

The little kids you keep telling not to cut through your yard are cutting through your yard. Not boisterous-bold and loose-limbed as they used to be in the first and second grades. But not huddled and spooked as they were last year. You had to saw off the dogwood limbs. They’d creak and sway, throwing shadows of alarm on the walkway, sending the children shrieking down the driveway. You couldn’t store mulch in lawnleaf bags then, either. They’d look, even to you, coming upon those humps in your flowerbed, like bagged bodies.

A few months ago, everyone went about wary,  tense, their shoulders hiked to their ears in order to fend off grisly news of slaughter. But now, adults walk as loose-limbed and carefree as the children who are scudding down the driveway, scuffing their shoes, then huddling on the sidewalk below.

The terror is over, the authorities say. The horror is past, they repeat every day. There’ve been no new cases of kidnap and murder since the arrest back in June. You’ve good reason to know the official line is a lie. But you sweep the walk briskly all the way to the hedge, as though in clearing the leaves you can clear from you mind all that you know. You’d truly like to know less.You want to believe. It’s 3:23 on your Mother’s Day watch. And your child is nowhere in sight.

I recently made one of my semi-sporadic trips to the library and got two books: 2011 Pushcart Prize XXXV and Published & Perished.

In the Pushcart Prize book, I read a short story, Mr. Tall by Tony Earley, that has me stumped. Now, I don’t easily get stumped by reading material but I finished the story with  an exclamation along the lines of “no, you didn’t end the story like that!” I mean, seriously! I was reading along, getting into the characters (which includes the natural environment) and boom! it takes such a sharp left turn, I feel like cold water was thrown on me. I want more! I want to know what happened with the characters, particularly the two involved in the ending of the story. (Even though it was published roughly three years ago, I still don’t want to spoil it for potential readers). Of course, being fond of good writing, I will be reading more of his work. I am officially a fan.

Mr. Tall is the first thing I read in Pushcart Prize XXXV but I will be reading more and reviewing what I find appealing.

Published & Perished contains a series of essay by writers on writers. There is, of course, canonical writers writing on other canonical writers; for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau. As if that wasn’t enough of an introduction to canon writers, it also includes Julian Hawthorne on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Before I have to return the book to the library, I will make my way through the entire lot. For now, though, I started with writers a little closer to my heart: Toni Morrison on James Baldwin and James Baldwin on Richard Wright. The memorial (that’s a more apt word choice than essay) Toni Morrison wrote for James Baldwin is one of the most moving things I have ever read. I was unaware that their connection was so deep. Here is an excerpt:

No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest – genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern, dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft, plump lies was lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called “exasperating egocentricity,” you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, “robbed it on the jewel of its naiveté,” and un-gated it for black people so that in  your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion – not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination – all the while refusing “to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [us].”  In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.

I found the James Baldwin essay on Richard Wright problematic in that I don’t know enough of the dynamic between the two writers to put what Baldwin had to say in context. I shall have to research it more before I could legitimately comment on it. I found a link that gave me a little bit of the history. Here is an excerpt:

As is often the case, pioneers get displaced by their successors. This was certainly the case with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1949, before any of his novels had been published, Baldwin turned on Wright and other writers of naturalistic fiction in an essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” appearing first in a now defunct magazine, Zero, and later that year in Partisan Review. “Literature and sociology are not one and the same,” Baldwin argued. He said the problem with protest novels dealing with Negroes, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is that they define the Negro by the conditions under which he lives, they fail to present him as a human being. And readers, said Baldwin, get “a definite thrill of virtue from the fact that they are reading a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation.” This was a frontal attack on Wright’s belief that literature should be an instrument for social progress, and it led to a rupture between the two. In his book, Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin recounted the difficult conversations they had had: “All literature is protest,” said Wright. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” To which Baldwin replied that “all literature might be protest but all protest was not literature,” which prompted this rejoinder from Wright: “Oh, here you come again with all that art-for-art’s sake crap.”

However, after Wright’s death, Baldwin had this to say:

I had identified myself with him long before we met: in a sense by no means metaphysical, his example had helped me to survive. He was black, he was young, he had come out of Mississippi and the Chicago slums, and he was a writer. He proved it could be done — proved it to me, and gave me an arm against all the others who assured me it could not be done. And I think I had expected Richard, on the day we met, somehow, miraculously, to understand this, and to rejoice in it. Perhaps that sounds foolish, but I cannot honestly say, not even now, that I really think it is foolish. Richard Wright had a tremendous effect on countless number of people whom he never met, multitudes whom he will now never meet. This means that his responsibilities and hazards were great. I don’t think that Richard ever thought of me as one of his responsibilities — bien au contraire! — but he certainly seemed, often enough, to wonder just what he had done to deserve me.

Related Links:

New Yorker interview with Tony Earley

Tony Earley reading Love by William Maxwell

James Baldwin : His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language

The Toni Morrison Society

Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcom X Festival ...

Amiri Baraka addressing the Malcom X Festival in San Antonio Park, Oakland, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote below is excerpted from an interview Kalamu ya Salaam did with Amiri Baraka.

ya Salaam: It’s one thing to have that sense, and it’s another thing to have the technical facility to put that sensibility on the page.

Baraka: Practice. Practice. Practice. I think that’s the only thing you can do. Like my grandmother said, practice makes perfect. To do anything you have to practice. You have to do it. If you don’t do it, you won’t do it. You can’t be a writer in your head, just like you can’t play the piano in your head. I’m the meanest piano player I know–in my head. I can play some piano in my head, it’s just when I get to the piano it gets difficult. You have to work at it.

And then I think, young writers, you have to get to the point where you start grading your work. At first when you start doing it, everything is great. Everything you write is valuable and you must (mimics holding stuff to his chest), this is my work, this a poem I wrote in nineteen-whatever. That’s normal but you have to work through that and get over that. I’m not saying get to the point where you think your work is expendable, but get to the point where you can grade it.

You know the worse thing you can do is write a “you-poem.” Nobody can imitate you like you. I can write a hundred poems that I write, but those are “you poems.” Those are poems using the things that you know are you. Once you become practiced in writing then you have certain skills that you can put a poem together, but the point is that it won’t have any substance to it. There won’t be any moving, there won’t be any life in it, any heart in it, cause you can imitate yourself.

The whole point of developing the skill is so that the words fly on the rhythm. You feel the rhythm before you know what you’re talking about. If you trust the rhythm and you’ve worked so that you don’t have a lot of dumb stuff in your mind all the time. (Laugher.) No, it’s true, because you might want to write about McDonald’s boxes, I don’t know. That’s why Mao says–and this is very important–when we look at your work we can tell what you love and what you hate, what you celebrate and what you put down, and we can also tell what work you’re doing and what study you’re doing. We can tell what you’re concerned with, we can tell by your writing, what you know and what you don’t know.

Now, the lyric poet is, of course, the great hidden personality of our time. They can write about “I”–I feel, I want, I do, I am–and really be hiding the world because all they’re talking about is this great vacuum in my heart that must be filled by, I don’t know, ice cream cones, a walk down the street, another person. You know what I mean, it could be anything? That’s the lyric “I”–I want, I need. But actually to begin to talk about who is I and where is I in the world among all the other I’s, and how that relates to a real objectively existing world that exists independent of us. The world exists independently of us–if you can get that in your mind. The world does not depend on you to exist, it exists independent of you. That’s hard sometimes, because we’re so subjective, especially we great artists, we think the whole world is in our heads. It’s not. The world exists independent of your will. Things will happen you don’t want to happen. How did we get here?

That point of writing past the preservation of everything, being able to grade your work–you know what I mean, being able to tell the fake from the true–and of getting past imitating yourself, those are important things.

Also, going back to Mao Tse-Tung. You ever read the Yenan Forum written in 1941? Mao was trying to build the communist party and one of the things he was talking about was intellectuals. What is the role of the intellectual? What is the role of artist in making social transformation? Now, if anybody needs to know that it’s us. That is what Yenan is about. The first question he asks: for whom does one write? Who are you writing for? Why are you interested in writing? Is it to titillate your own compulsive personality? What is it for? That’s a good point. Think about it sometimes. Once you begin to isolate “for whom” then you also know “what it is.” How do I explain what has gone down in this world for us?

So, when people be going up to me and saying Baraka you always political, I say why do you want me to be different from. You want me to be different from Baldwin, you want me to be different from Lorraine Hansberry, you want me to be different from Langston Hughes, or DuBois? Who should I get away from? Our tradition is intensely political. And for this recent group–and I’m not trying to categorize you in age terms–but for this recent little group of buppies that they’re publishing who think that somehow writing is not a political act, that always has been around but it’s something that Black people and indeed the people of the world have flogged.

Anyway, that’s a very important question–for whom?–because for whom answers why. You want to know for whom, look at your work. Who does it celebrate, who does it put down, who does it think is beautiful, who does it think is ugly, what work are you doing, what study? We can see it in there. We don’t have to ask you nothing, you give me your poetry or literature, I read it and I know a lot about you just from reading that. You could be writing about something you think is totally disguised, don’t have nothing to do with your life, you could be writing about Johnny Jojo way over there in Nobo land, you know, but it bees about you. That’s what it bees about. Why? Because that’s all you know about. It bees about us.

That’s another thing, a lot of people get frightened at; once they know that people know that when you write something, it’s about you, Jim, it ain’t about that one, it’s about you, then people get constipated. They don’t want to expose themselves. People be saying, I don’t know how he could write that book, Baraka you… hey, what I care. You be dead in a minute, people will read it–I always thought that if you felt strongly about a thing then you would face it.

For me, I had come out of a lil petite-bourgeois family, my mother was a social worker, my father was a postman, they always told me: y’all, are the smartest colored kids on the planet. They gave me piano lessons, trumpet lessons, drum lessons, piano lessons, painting lessons. I used to sing Ave Maria with my sister. I used to recite the Gettysburg Address every Lincoln’s birthday in a Boy Scout suit for about six years–this was my mama. The point is that for them two Negroes right there, they knew what they were going to do, they were going to give us all the information in the world, and they was going to equip us to go out and fight the White people. That’s where my people were coming from. Why? Because they wanted that. You were fighting for them. I never knew that, I never understood what they had planned for me until one night when the White people came–I had this play, Dutchman, and all of these papers, they were calling me names and all kinds of things, stupid, crazy, evil, but I could see that they were going to make me famous.

The minute that came to my mind that they were going to make me famous, I said, now, I’m going to pay your ass back. (Laughter.) Naw, it was very clear. It was like, bump. I could see how my mama had put the shell in there. Click. Right. Oh, you gon make him famous, I got some shit for you. That’s what it was, it was like you had been doctored on by masters. You understand? Every night at dinner, they’d be running it. You’re sitting there eating biscuits and what not, and they would be running it. They would be telling you the history of the south, the history of Black people, the history of Black music and you would be sitting there. They were actually teaching you. But I didn’t know that then. My grandmother would tell me all the time about this Black boy they accused of raping this woman and they cut off his genitals and stuffed them in his mouth and then made all the Black women come there and watch. My grandmother told me that story when I was a little boy. Why would your grandmother tell you that story? Because she wanted you to remember that shit forever. You understand? Sweet little old lady from Alabama would sit you down, give you something to eat, and tell you this horrible story, and then you trying to figure out: why would she tell me that story? Why would she tell you that story? Oh, you still know the story, you still got it in your mind, sixty years later, you still remember that story?–“yeah, I remember it”–in detail?–“absolutely”–well that’s why she told it to you.

I don’t know if y’all still have that in your homes, I can’t speak on that, but I know that is what we as writers have to do, continue that tradition. The only way I can see that tradition being extended is through the role and function of the writer in the community.

To read the entire interview, click here

I admit it. I bought this book because I like Edwidge Danticat’s books and was very interested in reading her choices. So far I have read two of the essays in the book: Generation Why? by Zadie Smith and Beds by Toi Derricote.

Generation Y was devastating in its critique of the Facebook phenomenon and makes me rethink being constantly connected; especially  considering I tend to reconnect with books when I disconnect.

Beds was originally published in Creative Nonfiction. A more apt named journal for this piece of writing, I cannot imagine. It reads like a piece of harrowing fiction but its placement in a book of essays dispels that delusion. With this essay, I found myself a fan of Derricote’s and will be adding her poetry to my to-be-read-this-year list; right alongside White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
  so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
  a cloudless distance waiting up the road.

So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I’d shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
  not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
  would beat against my palm like butterflies.

So alien had all novelty become
that sleep’s entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
  her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
  to join my own, without another thought.

So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had monkeys, by some accident,
  and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
  the sunset threatened Turkey with its blaze.

So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils-only that ancient bed-
that the triangle, before it came about
had been a perpendicular, the head
  of some acquaintance hovering above
  two points which had been coalesced by love.

So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
  somehow its halves were split and we went right
  through them into the future, into night.

 

 

Excerpted from Joseph Brodsky: Collected Poems in English

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, likea light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Exodus.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mosaics
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –

jubilation, O jubilation –
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

 

Source

(To Che, not in memoriam)

Your skin linked to the bone was lost in the earth.
The tear, the poem and the memory
are carving on the fire the song of death
with golden machine-guns from wherever you are.
And here, each night your books are searched
for the just motive of all action
and your memory opens up to all who are born again
but there is always someone who raises you upon a shrine
and creates a legend of your formative image
and makes impossible the dream of reaching you
and learns some of your phrases by heart
to say “I shall be like him” without knowing you
and proclaims them without love, without the dream
without love, without faith
and your words lose a sense of respect
to the man who is born covered by your splendour.
Some poet said, and this will be fairest:
From this day our duty is to defend you from being god.

Callejas, 1968 (the line in italics is Vicente Huidobro’s, from the poem Elegy to Lenin)

excerpted from Che in Verse

Che in Verse contains 134 poems and songs from 53 countries dedicated to, about, or referring to this martyr of the utopian left. The contributors range from Che’s fellow revolutionaries and anti-colonial freedom-fighters to a gay rights activist, a Cistercian monk, and a Cuban prisoner of conscience languishing in a US federal penitentiary.

1.
in the shower naked
he bends to suck
milk life
urge engulfs
we tumble into stream
barely able to separate
closed in by the enamel fist

2.
before the mirror
he comes up as i look at myself
cups them and squeezes
they jump up hard
nipples in dance-ritual
he’s to my back
enters
later i have a mirror
full of hand prints

3.
laying down his arm makes a
pillow for the right one
fingers grasp flesh
he lens forward
takes the left one into
his mouth
bites gently
wakes the eagle
i take flight

Excerpted from African Sleeping Sickness

Related Links:
Wanda Coleman – Wikipedia
Wanda Coleman – Poetry Foundation

Thanks – Yusef Komunyakaa

December 23, 2011

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raises his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thank for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Excerpted from The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

 

Related Links:

Yusef Komunyakaa on Poets.org

Komunyakaa reading his poem, Facing It